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School Group Photo  :An artist’s journey

- June 16, 2022

Francis Antony Kodankadath IRS

The title would take one back to those formative years in school, full of carefree moments, treasured as the golden period of life.
At first sight, the ‘School Group Photo’ would bring all those images to one’s mind. Just as the title suggests, a host of reminiscences would come rushing. The pictures of yesteryears show how far one had travelled in life. The nostalgia of those years, which often got dimmed in the midst of life’s hectic pace and crises, comes back to life with the ‘School Group Photo’, arousing a curiosity to know where the rest of the schoolmates are now, how they have fared in life, giving a positive surge to the thought processes and bringing a sense of calm to the mind.
For an artist, his art is a constant learning process. As the artist moves on in art and life, his sketches share some subtle messages and meanings, throwing light on the path taken by the artist. This is the graph of any artist. One should not see any philosophizing or rebellion in the art, rather one should identify, discern the dialogue the artist desires to have with the art lover, through the art that flows out from life experiences.
The artist’s schooldays were times when computers or mobile cameras did not exist. In schools, at the end of every academic year, there would be a photo session with the classmates, teachers and the Head Teacher. A photo of togetherness, of bonding, which in later years, in the midst of the hustle and bustle of life, was very often forgotten by many.
In the year 1985, when I was given the ‘Highly Commended Certificate’ by Kerala Lalithakala Akademi for the painting ‘School Group Photo’, it carried all the art lovers, all the elders, back to that long lost, irretrievable school time period.
Even for the artist, as he transported his childhood onto the canvas, it was like stepping into the past, to some unforgettable, beautiful times. It could be the very basic, lucid message conveyed by the painting that won the artist the deserved recognition.
Instead of the art style that spurts a random lot of colors onto the canvas, the artist chose to sketch deep, thick lines onto a solid paper, with colors scattered here and there and a picture emanating out of it. This was it at first sight. This was also the beginning of a new, distinct style of art, the style that went on to become the artist’s individuality.
Around 1983, the artist was employed at Malappuram as Field Officer of South Malabar Gramin Bank. During this period, I  had participated and painted pictures in the art camp held under the leadership of the renowned painter Puninchithaya at Malappuram.This was my only experience in art during this long four-year period from 1979 to 1983, a period when the artist had almost forgotten that he could paint!!
1985 was a year special in many ways for the artist. I was then twenty five years of age. I had just got married. My wife Shirly Joseph Chalissery was also an artist. Within a few weeks of getting married, I got a job as Inspector with the Department of Customs and Central Excise. The posting was at Kannur. Then followed a stage in life when as an artist, I was immersed in the affairs of home and office, a very normal stage in anyone’s life, also a stage when the art and the artist forgot one another.
Then came an unexpected moment in the life of the artist; a moment that directed the artist back onto the path of art. It was this turning point that motivated him to paint the ‘School Group Photo’.
Me and my wife would unfailingly be a part of the prayers held at the St Antony’s Cupola on Tuesdays at Onden Road in Kannur. It was a scene I witnessed one Tuesday on the way back after the prayers that became instrumental in making me getting active once again in the world of art and which made me apply for the award. There was a beautiful painting, framed and kept in the roadside workshop of Krishnan Asari. Since he was known to the me and also since the painting was fascinating, I made a detailed enquiry on the painting. Some artist had entrusted the shopkeeper to frame this painting to be sent for the State level art exhibition that would be held by the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi.
This brought back the memories of the school and college days to my mind. During those days the I had drawn several pictures and won many prizes at school and college level. Those long forgotten golden days of art were gradually coming back to the mind’s eye of me.. “First study well and become a topper. Of course it would be ideal if you could follow your passion for art too, along with this.” These were a father’s words of advice which the artist had taken to heart and then concentrated on academics, putting a hold on my passion for art. I believed that as life progressed, I had fared well in academics, got a good job, got married, led a happy life, but then realized that to add value to the meaning of life, to make life more beautiful, I needed art to be with me as a constant.
Of course these lines would make the reader wonder whether the artist’s father was against the son’s inclination towards art.
Never! The paintings that the society received from the artist were the result of the relentless encouragement that this great soul bestowed upon his son’s passion for art! The artist had a very limited knowledge on art acquired through his readings of contemporary publications. But to help the artist get acquainted with the art emanating from modern day techniques the artist’s father had created several opportunities that would aid the artist to observe the works of innumerable renowned artists and understand their craft and techniques. Furthermore, he had also enabled the artist to train for six months in an art school.
During the period 1967-68, the artist was moving on to the second standard in the St Clare’s L P School, which was situated just opposite the Bishop’s Palace in Thrissur, the cultural capital of Kerala. My classmate Balan would draw pictures on the slate with a pencil. He would draw the radiant sun or some colorful flowers. I was deeply drawn towards the beauty of the three dimensional nature emerging from the strokes made by Balan’s pencil, guided by his artistic hands. This was a milestone in his life as it stoked the embers of the passion for art lying dormant within me. Along with Balan, the art teacher, late Reverend Sister Delpheena Kakkassery also proved a source of motivation for me as an artist.. It was during this period that I  won my maiden prize which became an impetus for me to enter the world of art.  I had won the second prize that year in the all Kerala competition held annually on Children’s Day for school and college students.
I then joined the fifth standard at St Thomas’ High School adjacent to the St Thomas’ College. My father ,Professor K P Antony was a teacher at the Chemistry Department of the same college. Classes would be disrupted on most of the days due to students’ strikes. Observing that his son was just whiling away precious time, sitting at home, my father, with the intention of encouraging the son’s flair for art, had enrolled me in the Nehru School of Art and Photography, an institution having very senior artists and photographers as its faculty. Thenceforth, whenever there was a strike call by students, I would make use of the time to attend art classes under the tutelage of art teacher Samuel Master and with V S Balakrishnan Master who was a teacher in the College of Fine Arts.
With the frequency of strikes at school being on the rise, my art classes under Samuel Master also increased. I had begun to learn pencil drawing. When my father noticed that all the notebooks meant for class work were swiftly getting filled with art work, it proved worrisome to him. Being a teacher himself, my father staunchly believed that basic education should have the foremost priority over one’s hobbies and passions. Francis was thus shifted to the Government Model Boys’ School. With that came father’s words of advice, “First study well and become a topper. Of course it would be ideal if you could follow your passion for art too along with this”…This brought an end to the six months’ training in art. Since then, till date, I  had no opportunity for a formal training in art. The art teacher, Krishnankutty Master at Model Boys’ School guided Francis from pencil drawing to painting. It was during this period that the Thrissur Engineering College was holding their jubilee celebrations. Krishnankutty Master had said that the college would be holding an art competition for all students at the State level. During that time, there were families of gypsies that had tented at the Thekkinkad Maidan, Thrissur, weaving large, tall baskets out of reeds. The gypsies, their families, their children, their lives in the make-shift tents, their livelihood, their zest for life, the beautiful reed baskets that they created with their nimble fingers, all captivated me and that was what I had brought out in my canvas. Needless to say, this painting won me the first prize and the trophy. I had  pursued in my college education at St Thomas’ College in Thrissur. that year, in the competition held by the Calicut University Youth Festival 1979-80,the first prize for oil painting went to me.
In 1980, after completing graduation, I began the search for a secure job, in the midst of which it was but natural that the passion for art was shelved and well-nigh forgotten for long years.
All these thoughts had came rushing to my mind as I  stood outside the road-side shop of Krishnan Asary, mesmerized at the framed painting kept in the shop. I realized that there were just two more days left within which I  would have to apply for participating in this exhibition and also ensure that the painting would reach Thrissur, where the Akademi headquarters was situated. I  reached home in no time, and prepared to paint, but then noted that I  did not have the desired colors with me. It was night and the shops were closed. Luckily i still had the thick handmade art paper required for drawing. There were also some used tubes of paint. I  took a safety pin from my wife  and using the pin, began drawing. The lines drawn cast deep impressions on the paper. I sketched the head master and the class teacher in the centre. Depending on their height, the students stood on either side of the teachers and the taller among them stood behind in a row. The rest of the students sat on mats spread on the floor. I had finished sketching. As I looked at the picture that I had drawn as per the size decided by the Akademi, another idea came across in my mind. I  mixed water into the colors of the used tubes of paints that I  had with me. I  gradually poured this onto the surface of the handmade paper sheet and then slowly tilted it, watching as the colors spread all over. I  had completed the picture that night itself.
A sense of elation filled me, as I  observed the painting the next morning. My painting would be considered for competition only if it were framed immediately and if it reached Thrissur within the stipulated time. I  framed the painting with an aluminium sheet that was available in the market because a wooden frame would mean  further delay, though my mind said that it was not right. The painting was dispatched by courier service. Luck graced me and won the highly Commended Certificate by Kerala Lalithakala Akademi for the painting. This was a milestone event, a significant turning point that marked my return to the world of art.

(*The writer is an acclaimed artist and retired Asst Commissioner of Customs)

With contributions from Aneesh Kuttan and Smt Uma Rao